It has been rarely so early that I have sat down to write. Over the past week, my head has been flooded with so much thoughts, its impossible to pen them down. I have been feeling its burden, wanting to unload, but every single time I sat before a blank document, no words came out, my mind as empty as the paper before me.
The past week has been relaxing but not very good to me. Aside from that, I’ve been feeling accomplished that I have completed reading two books, Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi (Ellen degeneres’ wife), and How to Fall in Love by Cecelia Ahern.
I read Unbearable Lightness first. From the start, I knew this book has saved people from anorexia, and I knew I had to take it seriously. Portia wrote mainly about her eating disorder and coming out as gay, and how she lived a life of pretence in the past, hating who she was. It’s such an amazing book.
Previously this year, I didn’t know much about eating disorders etc. But this year I watched “TO THE BONE” played by Lilly Collins and found that I didn’t understand the mind of the bulimic, I couldn’t relate to why people binge and are so scared to eat. I mean, previously, all I knew was eating disorders happened to people who starve and binge because they don’t want to get fat, and that’s about it. But reading this book…Portia takes me through the thoughts—her thoughts of a bulimic, her fears, how she measured each and every ounce of food and counted every single calorie like it was a math homework. I struggled grappling with the truths and the thoughts—I found it crazy, ridiculous even, how people can count every single calorie like that, that doesn’t make sense. I mean, I don’t even look at the nutritional info at the back of a candy bar…let alone count calories.
So that was interesting. My understanding has always been there, but books like these made me more empathetic I would say.
“Nobody can really get inside the anorexic’s mind like the anorexic. I abused my body. I had bulimia. I used (diet drug) fen-phen. I wanted to talk about all that,” she said.
I’m so glad she brought me through her thought process, her train of thoughts because if not I would never have empathised and see eating disorders from that point of view. For instance, I never knew people suffering from eating disorders love food. I thought they hated food and that’s why they don’t eat. They hated food because it makes them fat. But I was so shocked to learn that food is like the ‘forbidden fruit’ to them, and it is because they could not have it that they love it so much.
I also loved the perspective of being constantly at war with your own body. In an eating disorder, you LOSE when you have a lack of self-control. When you binge and eat, you are your own enemy. They get satisfaction when they exercise, work out, and limit themselves to a certain number of calories. There’s a voice in your head, telling you to get on the treadmill. Portia remembered an incident when she was 12, where someone made a remark body shaming her and she said that voice in her head stuck around for so long, till she was 24. She remembered it because it is not something you can just forget. I counted. It stuck around for 12 years for her. I thought I was the only one having voices from my childhood haunting me for years. Turns out everyone is just the same. I wondered if the voice in my head since I was 9 years old would stick around for 12 years too. After all, it had already stuck around for 11 years. I wondered when it will ever go away, and thought about those lucky people, like Portia, whose voice went away in the end. I guess I just wondered when it will ever be my turn.
But what I can relate to is the obsession with weight and food here. I have been there, thought the situation was a bit different. I was 14, and because I wanted to gain weight so badly (I was skinny as a stick), my mum forced me to down large, huge portions of food I could not finish. After eating so much, I still remained skinny. Others see it as a blessing but I don’t think you could when people are giving comments like “too thin”, “my, you could be blown away by the wind!”…comments that do not seem like a compliment to me. I thought, “What’s the use of eating when food cannot even help me gain weight? It would just be a waste of resources and money.” My mum still forced me to eat large portions. No results were reaped. As a result of rebellion and repulsiveness, that led me to hate food and obsess over portions. It took me a long time to tell myself and see food as something enjoyable, nutritious, a gift from God to humans to stay alive—that’s it. It took me a long time but I finally did come to appreciate food: that’s the correct attitude we should all have towards food, develop a healthy love for it and that’s it.
Another main theme in the book of Portia struggling being in the closet. Her mother would accept her being gay but at the same time encouraged her to keep it a secret. Portia wrote that she was also angry, that her mother cared more about how she looked [to her relatives, to the eyes of the public] than how she felt or who she was. I can relate to that. Many times my mother has told me, “Don’t post this on Instagram, later *inserts friends’ name here* might see and tell her mum (my friends’ parents are usually friends with my mum), and then later her mum would think that that we are very _____”. Complete the sentence yourself. It would always usually be negative adjectives, like “very rich”, “very wild”, “very show-off” etc.
I have told her I disliked it. Luckily, it got better but I would never forget the rage I had. Why should I live my life based on other people’s standards? I told her Instagram is my passion, posting photos are my passion, and I’m not about to give something so precious over to the subjectivity of public scrutiny. Even if they did say and think something, I would ignore it. My mum used to struggle more with what people think as compared to me.
But most of all, the deepest parts of the book that resonated with me has nothing to do with eating disorders. They were her struggles for self-worth, and her constant strive for accomplishment, for perfection. Portia’s perception of herself as a whole.
She spent her whole life trying to change who she was. She changed her name, her accent, her nationality, pretended to be straight by marrying a man and tried to be skinny. She convinced herself that being in Los Angeles was better than being in Australia. “…I was trying to find a reason for having had to escape from the place that was my home. To convince myself of my choice, I had to make it a place that everyone should want to escape from.”
I find it hard not to relate this to myself. Portia was just nineteen when she left Australia and flew to America to audition for a role as an actress that she wasn’t even sure if it was what she wanted. I’m twenty when I left Singapore and flew to Sydney to pursue a career in the media industry. It’s funny the country Portia tried so hard to get out of, I wanted to get in. Singaporeans called it “Australian dream”. Its also funny the country I tried so hard to get out of (Singapore), foreigners all over Asia are scrambling to get in the prosperous city-state.
Is it really the grass is greener on the other side?
I don’t deny that, similar to Portia, I wanted to escape from my birth country. But it wasn’t because that I was not proud of her. It was more because of my desire to see the world at large. Unlike her, though, I do not need to convince anyone and make Singapore a place that everyone should want to escape from. Many of my peers already think that way. It is not common for youths to complain, “Aiyah, Singapore so small, so boring, so hot all year round, everything is so expensive” and the desire to escape, to get out, is common, as a matter of a fact. Whoever got out was envied and admired by many.
“Lucky you,” they said.
But Australia? I don’t see why Portia wanted to get out of Australia. It is big, vast with natural, beautiful landscapes to go trekking or do lots of activities. The cars and houses are cheap. They have the 4 seasons. Weather is good. However, America—the land of the free—presents itself as endless opportunities from showbiz to entrepreneurship. New York, California, Los Angeles, its where everyone makes it big. That’s the ultimate dream. I guess, the common point between me, her, and possibly all human beings: we just wanted to get out of where we are from. We desperately wanted change, that we think a new place would bring a new and better life (this is not entirely false, though).
However, one of my favourite quotes in the book was when she was back in her home country, Melbourne:
“We just need to silently acknowledge that we were home, that we were where we came from, that for that moment we didn’t need to live in another country just to feel accomplished. We were okay just as we are.”
I feel the fear kicking in. The fear when, one day, all this will end and I will be called to go home for good. It would be just like a dream, and as cliche as it sounds, like Cinderella. I’m contented now and I’m pretty sure 2017’s uni life has been the best semester of my study life so far. However, that fear…that fear of losing all this one day has led everyone scrambling to try for a post-work VISA. I know I’ll never get it (complicated immigration issue), and it seems unlikely I will stay. I know all of this stems from the belief that we need to live in another country to feel accomplished. The pay here is higher, the car is cheaper, more things to explore, shorter working hours, better lifestyle….on and on.
I am struggling very hard to stay humble because I can see that living here makes me better off than all my other peers in Singapore. Okay, before you bash me, I know it’s probably subjected to personal opinion, but this is my opinion after weighing both sides of the coin. Coming overseas to study with scholarship, I had suddenly become my parents’ pride. And who doesn’t want to make your parents proud? Who doesn’t want to hear your parents speak well of you?
You will be missed and loved by your parents. You are no longer remembered for your flaws, because you do not live with them anymore and they don’t have to face your messy room, you breaking your curfew, and your obscene language. Instead, they start to see your qualities instead of picking at your flaws as compared to when they were living with you.
“Oh, my girl is so independent now. She cooks her own meals.”
“I’m so proud, she went there by herself, not knowing anyone in the country, she’s so brave to step out there.”
That’s what all mothers say about their children who go overseas, trust me.
Your relationships with family improve because they miss you and become more tolerable. You don’t have to face nagging from your parents, so you guys don’t fight anymore. All is good. In the past, familiarity breeds contempt. Living with a person (even family) is the worst way to show your flaws to the person. Now you’re gone, they’ve learnt to appreciate you. You learn to appreciate your mum’s warm meals after coming home. You appreciate your dad’s hugs. You miss your parents, and suddenly nothing feels as important as kinship anymore.
What I’m saying is, living away from your hometown leads one to romanticise kinship and their relationships they once had.
Suddenly, when you return back to your hometown, you’re “the girl who came back from abroad” and will be the talk at dinner parties and gatherings. People will ask you, “How’s Australia?”, “How’s America?”, and the more attention u received compared to people who never left home.
In short, I love this quote: “We just need to silently acknowledge that we were home, that we were where we came from, that for that moment we didn’t need to live in another country just to feel accomplished. We were okay just as we are.” because it grounds us. I have seen people come back from their overseas studies and become a complete bitch, looking down on those who did not venture out. They walk with an air of arrogance, like all high and mighty, knowing they have had more experience interacting with foreigners, exotic people, more travel experience; they are self-sufficient, with heightened cultural capital and knowledge, unlike their low-profile peers. This is true. But don’t do that. Because we are where we come from, and we were okay just as we are.